Having spent a day recovering from our border ordeal, we were ready to begin our exploration of beautiful Cambodia. A country that is famed for its stunning city of ancient ruins, but also its history of tradgedy and death. We have spent the last week seeing both ends of the spectrum for ourselves.
The most visited attraction in all of South East Asia, Angkor Wat boasts a collection of 1000 year old temples from the Khmer Empire. It is the largest religious monument in the world, originally constructed as Hindu temples but gradually transformed over time to a Buddhist tenple.
An item on the bucket lists of many is witnessing sunrise behind the most famous temple. The tuk tuk journey would cost us more, and to be in a good spot on time we had to get up at 4am so this provoked some discussion about whether we should bother – I am beyond glad that we did.
A sea of tourists equipped with an array of electronic gadgets gathered in the darkness eagerly awaiting the light to bring the silohette to life in order to get the perfect picture. There were people with iPhones and “point and shoot” cameras, ranging all the way to those that carried huge professional equipment and even a chap flying a drone. As the sun rose, it wasn’t hard to see why. Me and James took our fair share of pictures, but I’m thankful that we also took the time to look away from our screens and appreciate the beauty unfolding in front of us. The dark looming silohette began to burst with brilliant faces and hand carved decoration as the sunlight grew stronger. The building truly is magnificent.
Almost as impressive as the view, is the fact that considering the age of the building, it still stands in incredibly good condition and is able to accommodate thousands of tourists each day. This can be said for the majority of the temples in the ancient city for that matter, however some are in a more ruined state than others.
The Bayan temple or The Temple of Faces is an example of a building that is crumbling in parts. As the name suggests, everywhere you look eyes look back at you from the walls. It was however not built with as much care as its predecessor and with smaller blocks of stone to speed up the process, which apparently contributes to its escalated rate of decay.
We also visited Ta Prohm Temple, a temple some may recognise from the Tomb Raider films. Aside from its film fame, this temple is most well known for the way that trees have began to consume it and weave their way through its cracks. This certainly gives the place a sense of character and an almost fairytale like eeriness.
The one downer on the day was the cost – particularly the increased admission price. I’m sure I had this important nugget of information somewhere in my head, and had obviously read about it, and put it aside to be completely forgotten about; as of 1st February 2017 one-day admission to Angkor Wat almost doubled from a near reasonable $20 to an obsurd $37! Considering you can live easily for normally around $5 in this part of the world, that is crazy expensive! Multi-day tickets have increased too, but comparatively they’re pretty good value. Nevertheless, to go to Cambodia and especially to be in Siem Reap and not see this wonder would have been senseless – so we sucked it up, and if you ever get the opportunity, I strongly advise you to do the same.
A bus ride (not as dramatic as the last) took us to the capital city Phnom Penh. This city is famous for an entirely different part of history, and it’s story is far more gruesome.
Under the rule of a man named Pol Pot and his army, the Khmer Rouge, over a third of the country’s population was wiped out in a sickening attempt to restore Cambodia to “Year 0”. Schools became prisons and torture chambers, and farms became work camps to be known as The Killing Fields. This mass genocide, to my horror, was only 40 years ago in the 1970s. The brutality we learnt about seemed medieval, and I was not only shocked but felt quite uncultured that I barely knew a thing about it all. The most I knew was a few stories about the museums from fellow travellers and friends.
We started our day at Choeung Ek, an old Chinese graveyard before it became the most notorious location of mass murder. The field has been changed drastically since its days as a kill station, but one thing remains; the victims.
Following the discovery of the field, forensic investigations were done to determine causes of death for many of the bodies found in the mass graves. Pits lined the fields, and some of them still had rags, bones and teeth emerging them. Although many bodies had already been exhumed, many graves had been left to allow the dead to “rest”. However with the passing years and with each heavy rainfall more bodies were exposed and clear to see. Volunteers do a monthly walk around to pick up pieces to avoid people standing on them, and they add them piles encased in glass for visitors to pay their respects too. James and I saw plenty of bones that were surfacing and rags of clothing too. I had never, and also hope I don’t ever have to see anything like this again.
The even bigger tradgedy, is that this was one of approximately 300 locations where unworthy people were murdered and thrown into mass graves. 2,000,000 people died in merely three years, and only the “lucky” few were granted a quick end and shot as bullets were few. I won’t go hugely into the details, but if you don’t know anything about The Killing Fields, they’re worth a read into. The audio tour we took set the scene all too well and as we walked around in stunned silence, I felt sick more than once.
As if we hadn’t saddened ourselves enough for one day, we headed to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned prison also known simply as S21.
The audio tour at this place actually had several in tears. The school was used to keep people captive whilst they were tortured into confessing their alligience with enemies. Once a confession was gained, the prisoners were told they were being taken to a “new home” and were put into a van. All of them ended up in one of the mass graves of the killing fields. Men, women, children, Cambodians, Australians and Americans all fell into the hands of these ruthless soldiers. To this day, there are only 12 known survivors from S21, and we met one the day we visited! Although, as James rightfully said, if I had been part of the atrocities described to us, I wouldn’t step within a 100 mile radius of the place again.
The building is largely untouched in most parts. I took very few photos, just a couple to share here.
Crazily, all this went on and no country intervened or tried to help. Several countries in the Wedtern world in fact continued to accept the Khmer Rouge as a political party even after the horrors of these events was properly revealed – The UK included.
Whilst tragic, I’m glad we took the time to visit and learn about what took place in Cambodia.
There is a 1984 film based on the true story of an American Journalist in Cambodia at the time that we went to watch the day afterwards in a local picture house – worth a watch. The cinema, The Empire, is also worth a visit. Check it out here! They show The Killing Fields every single day and with admission of only $3.50 you can stay for as many films afterwards as you like. They bring food and beer right to your seat (or bed if you’re lay on one of the mattresses!). The chillout was exactly what we needed after such a heavy day.